Illegal drugs

People use illegal drugs for many reasons – to experiment, to seek new experiences, to self-medicate or to be social and not be left out. Whatever the reason, there's always a risk of harm. Knowing what could happen when you take drugs can help you understand the risk and keep yourself safer.

What are illegal drugs?

A drug is a substance that affects the way your body functions. If a drug is classified as ‘illegal’, this means that it is forbidden by law. Different illegal drugs have different effects on people and these effects may be experienced in various ways. This makes them unpredictable and dangerous, especially for young people.

What are common illegal drugs in Aotearoa NZ?

There is a wide variety of illegal drugs. The following are a few examples, but for more detailed information about illegal drugs, see the New Zealand website High Alert or the Australian website Positive Choices

 Examples of drugs that are illegal in Aotearoa New Zealand 
  • Cannabis (for recreational use)
  • Methamphetamine (P, ice, speed)
  • MDMA (ecstasy, E)
  • Cocaine, crack cocaine
  • Heroin 
  • Hallucinogens, eg, LSD (acid, trips), magic mushrooms, ketamine (Special K, vitamin K, kitkat)  
  • Inhalants (rush)
  • Solvents, eg, aerosols, glue, petrol, methylated spirits
  • Sedatives, eg, kava, GHB

What are the effects of illegal drugs?

The effects of a drug are influenced by:

  • the type of drug
  • how much you use
  • where you are when using the drug
  • how you take the drug
  • what you are doing while using the drugs
  • individual characteristics, such as your body size and health vulnerabilities
  • how many different drugs you take at one time (see polydrug use).

If I choose to use illegal drugs, how can I keep myself safer?

Know your stuff – without knowing what you are using, you are unable to predict the effect it will have, how long it will last, how much to take, and what the health risks could be. Street drugs are often not pure and it can be difficult to know what they are mixed with. 

Avoid mixing – using more than one substance greatly increases your risk of harm. The way that different drugs interact can be unpredictable, and using more than one at a time can put greater strain on your body. In some cases this could be dangerous and cause harmful effects.

Choose the safest method – make sure you take your drugs in the safest way possible. This means thinking about how, when and where you use. 

Only take as much as you need to get the effect you want – using a smaller amount can often give the expected effects, while reducing the undesirable effects. This is a much safer approach, as an overdose is caused by using too much of one or multiple substances.

Use with other people who can look out for you – only take drugs when you are with people you trust, and who can help you out if something doesn’t go according to plan.

Check that you are living the life you want – keep an eye out for signs that your drug use is affecting your life in some way. Are you finding it hard to get out of bed or go to work? Are the bills starting to mount up, or are you failing to meet your commitments? These may be signs your drug use is affecting your life negatively and it might be time to make changes or ask for help.

Make use of drug-checking services at events – drug checking is a free service that tests the safety of recreational drugs. It's available in New Zealand from KnowYourStuffNZ

Find out more about how to be safer when using illegal drugs.

What if I have taken illegal drugs by mistake?

If you have taken an illegal drug by mistake, or think you might have, you can contact the National Poisons Centre 0800 764 766 for advice. If it is an emergency call 111.

What if I am concerned about my (or a friend's) use of illegal drugs?

Some people have tried taking drugs without any harmful impact on their physical and mental health, work or relationships. But others move from recreational use onto problematic use or even addiction. If you are concerned about your own or someone else’s drug use and you want to make a change, there are some information and support services available to help. Speak to your primary health care provider (GP or Nurse Practitioner) to get some confidential advice or to find out about the services you can access.  

Where to get support

Alcohol Drug Helpline 0800 787 797 including support for youth, Māori and Pacific callers
Community Alcohol and Drug Services (CADS) Support for alcohol and drug treatment across Aotearoa NZ. Getting a referral from your doctor may mean you can get an appointment sooner.
DrugHelp If you are concerned about how drugs are affecting your life or that of someone close to you.

Learn more 

You can find reliable information and the latest updates about illegal drugs in New Zealand, on these websites:

You can also sign up to get important alerts about dangerous drugs

Know Your Stuff has a pill library of images of pills people bought thinking they were MDMA but that weren't.

The NZ Drug Foundation has a Drug Index that includes accurate, complete and clear information about drugs used by New Zealanders, including their effects, risks, ways to be safer and what to do if someone is distressed or struggling with their use of alcohol or other drugs. 

Credits: Health Navigator Editorial Team. Reviewed By: Tracey Xu, RN PGHealSc, Mauri Ora Student Health and Counselling, Victoria University of Wellington Last reviewed: 10 Nov 2021